So it’s been about 10 years since the beginning of the Reformation in 1517. Luther and some of his cohorts have been traveling around parts of Germany and what they discover is that, although wherever Luther goes, he preaches his reforming message, he can’t be everywhere and not everyone is interpreting his writings in the same way. They also discover that the movement is creating some confusion, people are keeping the parts of Catholicism they like while ignoring the parts of Protestantism that they don’t. Remember, legalism is an easier message to understand. “Do this and you will make God happy” makes for very simple religion. “God is already happy with you,” is an uplifting message but creates grey areas in terms of practice. As some dear friends have told me, “Pastor, if you keep telling people that they don’t have to do anything then nothing will get done around the church.”
It’s also noteworthy to mention that most religious education did not happen at church at this time. Children did not go to Sunday school because there weren’t Sunday schools until the late 1700s in England and into the 1800s in the U.S.. Religious education happened in the household and generally it was the father’s job in German households to pass on the faith.
So in 1529, Luther published the Small Catechism as a tool to help teach children the basics of the Christian faith from a grace-centered perspective. In some ways it is a “What every Christian should know” document and so covers the basics of Christian devotion: The 10 Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Confession and Forgiveness and the Sacraments. Some people might ask why it doesn’t put more focus on the Bible. Remember that, although Luther helped make the Bible accessible by translating and encouraging it to be translated in common languages, most people didn’t have a Bible in their homes. They were more available, but they were still big and expensive books that required a good level of literacy.
So Lutherans have used the Catechism as a basic understanding of the Christian faith for about 500 years. Many of you probably had to memorize it when you were younger. I think the mistake that we have made with the catechism is that Luther intended it as an introduction and starting place for faith and we have often used it as a limit, saying, “Once I know this, I don’t need to know anymore.” We have substituted learning the Catechism for living the faith. The faith that Jesus calls us to is a way of life and a way of looking at life. Luther provided the Catechism as a way of helping people enter this way of life, this divine/human relationship that is Christian faith. It is a starting point; not an end point.
During the season of Easter, we are going look through the Small Catechism’s instruction on the Lord’s Prayer. There are all sorts of scripture that Luther could have included as summary statements of faith. He could have used more of the Sermon on the Mount as a summary of Jesus’ teaching. He could have had us memorize parts of Paul’s letter to the Romans that led him to his rediscovery of a grace-centered understanding of faith.
Keep in mind that Luther was writing for children, that he was trying to give a starting place. What he chose as the focal points for the catechism represent different approaches to God. He starts with the 10 commandments as a way of establishing a moral code, but also, in his definitions, expanding that code so that we might recognize how we fall short of it. The 5th commandment, “You shall not murder,” is expanded beyond killing to say, “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them an all of life’s needs.” Luther is simply incorporating the style of interpretation that Jesus teaches in the Sermon on Mount so that, while I can say I have not killed anyone to my knowledge I also have to admit I have not lived up to that commandment. The 10 Commandments offer a moral code and present God as judge before whom I will be found guilty.
He then moves to the Apostles’ Creed, which in not a biblical text, but rather the product of the early church trying to define what Christianity believes (as are all our creeds). The Creed presents the salvation story as it describes Jesus and also God as Trinity: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier (one who makes us holy). It is a great summary of the faith and with Luther’s explanations a great summary of the Lutheran understanding of faith, especially as he describes the work of the Holy Spirit, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith.” The problem with any kind of creed is that it tends to put God at a distance. All of our creeds are products of academic debates with careful wordings that went through committees and councils. They can be a bit like talking about ice cream without being able to taste it. That sounds good but it would be better if I can experience it.
So then he moves to the Lord’s Prayer both because this is the Prayer that Jesus gives us as a model for prayer, but also because it allows us to taste the ice cream; it allows us to experience God in a personal way, not as the judge of the 10 commandments and not as the creator God far out in the universe of the Creed but as divine parent, Father. We heard that today, “With these words God wants to attract us, so that we come to believe he is truly our Father and we are truly his children.” Now I don’t want to go too far into a whole inclusive language thing. But I will say that the Bible is the product of a highly male-dominated culture as was Martin Luther. If you are more comfortable addressing God as Mother, you can do that. God can handle it. If you are more comfortable addressing God as Parent, you can do that. God can handle it (probably better than most traditional Lutherans can).
The point is that we are in the realm of the personal relationship. Notice that there is still a sense that this is collective. It is “Our” parent in heaven and not “My” parent in heaven. Jesus always keeps it communal. The neighbor is always there. The temptation is to make things extremely personal and think that it is just about God and me, my faith, my journey, my walk. Jesus always keeps pushing us to think about God and we. Love God and love your neighbor. If your neighbor has something against you, go and be reconciled and then come and make offerings to God. When we are connected to God in faith we are always connected to something more, a church, a community or, at least, a neighbor.
Luther’s choices in crafting the Small Catechism also reflect a balance of images of God. We need the God of the 10 Commandments who challenges us to change our lives; to stop hurting other people and starting helping other people because it is the right thing to do. We need the God of the Apostles’ Creed who is big, awesome, distant, mysterious, transcendent, greater than the universe itself. We need the God of the Lord’s Prayer who is personal, intimate, a loving parent. God is all of those things and not exactly any one of them.
God is the God who crafted the universe. God is the God who died for us on the cross. God is the God who rose from the dead and showed himself to a doubting disciple. God is the God who gives us a way to live, forgives us when we fail to live up to it and gives us a promise of new life. And God is the parent, the father, the mother, who love us deeply and earnestly, who hears us when we pray and rejoices when we realize that, in the words of Martin Luther, “God is truly our Father and we are truly his children.”